By Tony Casson
“…uphold the rights of the oppressed and destitute.” Psalm 82:3b NLT
“We did not dare to breathe a prayer
Or to give our anguish scope!
Something was dead in each of us
And what was dead was hope.”
Oscar Wilde “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”
For the typical individual facing freedom after years behind bars, the prospects – while not hopeless – are limited; the challenges are many and intimidating; the obstacles are numerous; and the odds of success seem to be stacked against them. Society looks down on those bad boys and girls who keep the wheels of “justice” turning and have appeared in its newspapers and on its television sets. The public is both titillated and repulsed by the tattooed tough guys and gals who create havoc on shows like “Cops.” They are inclined to think that this is just how some people are and have allowed themselves to be convinced that people who are broken cannot be fixed.
Perhaps to a degree, and for some, that is a true statement. But there is nothing that will guarantee failure as surely as doing nothing. To say that the criminal justice system as it exists today is focused on trying to rehabilitate, educate, restore and reintegrate those who have gone to prison is simply not true. Failing many of our children early in life; creating an industry in human misery where the profits are enormous; feeding that industry through the abject failure of half-hearted or non-existent rehabilitation and education programs; and dealing with those who have been newly re-introduced to society in a heavy-handed, oppressive way all contribute to the failure that is called “criminal justice” in America today.
With so much money at state, it is easy to hide behind the cynical stance of “they don’t want to change.” However, if the American public was aware of how many men and women desperately want to change, they might alter that stance. Unfortunately, these men and women are expected to change but do not have, nor are they given, the education, job skills, life skills, confidence, support and encouragement that are required to bring about those changes. When all that is done is to extend a hand to someone while standing on their chest, we can hardly be surprised at the negative result.
When I was young, we would occasionally engage in a cruel activity (hey, I was young!) called “piling on.” In the course of playing, one person would wind up on the ground and someone would yell “PILE ON!”, whereby all the rest would bury the unfortunate soul at the bottom of a pile of unyielding bodies. I have been that body at the bottom. I have known the suffocating, frightening sensation of being trapped. I have known what it was like to want to get out. But I have also known the helpless feeling of having absolutely no idea how to accomplish that. I struggled, but to no avail. I tried to get out from under the pile but I was dependent on the very people who had me trapped. How, then, was I to regain my freedom?
Now let’s pile on some more: In addition to all of the difficulties and obstacles facing felons that I have laid out for you, a convicted sex offender – regardless of the nature of the offense – has several oppressive, invasive and restrictive conditions that will make any effort at reintegration back into society so extremely difficult as to be almost impossible. For many, these conditions and restrictions create what is tantamount to a life sentence of suspicion and condemnation that very well should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. At the very least, the current methods used to monitor and control registered sex offenders are nothing more than tactics which bully and belittle American citizens and should be a clear violation of the civil rights of these individuals.
There is no denying that when a child is abused and/or killed by a predatory monster, it is a very natural response for all parents to share the pain of those who have lost a part of themselves that can never be replaced. But as I have tried to point out on these pages, the ones least likely to harm any child are the ones who draw the most attention. People are understandably angry, scared, ad confused; publicity-seeking politicians and a sensationalist media make certain of that.
But those who have had no contact with children and have served the time to which they were sentenced are angry, scared and confused as well; a length of time in prison deemed by many professionals as being excessive, reactionary counterintuitive. When these individuals are released, a whole array of separate, suffocating, demeaning and isolating rules and regulations await them. These are in addition to those that face other felons released from prison.
The single most daunting item facing sex offenders newly released from prison is the sex offender registry, on which they are required to be listed in all of our states. The astonishing number of repressive items, including polygraph testing, GPS ankle-bracelet monitoring, living restrictions and a host of other horrors is overwhelming. The subject of the registry is so dense and complex that it cannot be undertaken here and I will address it in a separate article at a later date.
The battles and debates over many of these “protective” rules and regulations rages in courtrooms across the country. But as they continue, those who fall under their purview have to deal with the consequences created by them.
Finding a place to live in increasingly more difficult – almost impossible in some cities. Some people are not allowed to live with their families. Some actually “live” in tents and “visit” their families during the day.
Some states issue driver’s licenses with “sex offender” stamped on them in red; an updated version of the scarlet letter. How does this protect children and what does it accomplish beyond embarrassing and humiliating the one required to produce it?
Sex therapy group sessions required on a weekly basis for years involve standing up at each session and reintroducing yourself as a sex offender, re-stating your offense and then proceeding to re-live your experiences and remain in the past for 60 minutes a week as a constant reminder of what you did, no matter what you have done to redefine who you are and making moving forward difficult at best.
The average person can simply not fathom how permanent and black is the mark on your life when you misplace your morals, your decency, your maturity and your common sense.
When a sex offender applies for a job and discloses his or her offense, that person is looked at by some with open disdain and distaste. An individual’s ability to earn a living and care for him or herself and those they are responsible for is severely hampered by that mistake that cannot be undone no matter how much they want to or how hard they try.
If you can find a place to live and you are unfortunate enough to have children, they will be subjected to uncomfortable stares and barely disguised whispers after your neighbors discover who you are by running to the computer. Once the “flag” pops up, the circumstances and your remorse will not matter. More innocent victims will be created beyond those who have already suffered as this hate directed toward you spills over onto your children unfairly and unkindly.
These statements can be taken as warnings to those who think child pornography and Internet fantasies are a game. A moment in the “privacy” of your home can cost you your freedom and net a lifetime in the public’s disapproving eye. It can, in fact, cost you more than you thought possible and surely more than anyone should be expected to pay. These statements are also a plea for reform and the upholding of the Constitution of the United States.
Will the situation be impossible for those leaving prison? Or course not; at least not for everyone. But for many, the American nightmare will continue long after the closing of prison gates behind them. The real horror and the real shame will only just be starting. For many, the rejection, isolation and harassment they experienced in prison will pale in comparison to life as a “free” citizen of this country.
If two wrongs can never make a right, then the tens of thousands of wrongs being perpetrated against citizens of this country can never be expected to make right what is so very wrong in America today.
The national embarrassment that constitutes post-prison “treatment” and monitoring of sex offenders – particularly those guilty of non-contact Internet crimes – is the most inexcusable abrogation of the basic rights afforded to Americans by our Constitution that we have ever allowed to occur.
More prejudicial, discriminatory and demeaning than the treatment of African Americans under the idiotic banner of “separate but equal”; as judgmental and blatantly anti-American as the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II; and more inflammatory and irresponsible than McCarthyism. In each and every case of those dark events in our nation’s history, America was wrong – and American is wrong now.
As the world watches, we move forward each day, branding those who have already paid the price. These exorbitant prices are demanded by a legislative body driven by political and financial self-interests. They are endorsed by an appellate court system, right on up to the Supreme Court itself, which should know better. They all lack the courage to stand up and say, “As much as we need to protect the children of this country, we must also protect the rights of those who have served the prison sentences demanded by law. We can never allow ourselves to put the seal of approval on the right to exact punishment for crimes that have not yet been committed or that we imagine they might have gotten away with.”
If this is not fixed by Congress or stopped by the Supreme Court, then the unlikelihood of books and films like “1984” and “Minority Report” is upon us – and shame on all of them.
God help this country.
I thank you for your time and attention to this series: AMERICA’S CULTURE OF INCARCERATION.